Politics of knowledge: World literacy, banned books and power regimes

1947: Literacy day in India Photograph:( Others )

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Sep 08, 2016, 12.37 PM (IST) Madhumita Saha

Half a century ago, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared September 8 as the International Literacy Day. The aim was to emphasise the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies. Over the years and across the globe, national governments, individuals and private organisations have harped on the significance of raising public awareness about the extraordinary value of written words. The ability to read and write, which some of us are so effortlessly introduced to by our families, is still a rare skill among 775 million adults worldwide, that is, one in five adults are still not literate and two-thirds of them are women.

Coming of books: Printing presses, mass literacy and inequities
The persistence of high rate of illiteracy is astounding, particularly, because printed books over the past five hundred years or so have helped significantly to democratise knowledge acquisition. Ever since the arrival of movable-type printing in Europe in the fifteenth century, it very gradually liberated knowledge from the confines of the monasteries and made it accessible beyond the circle of the cultural elites. The concept of mass literacy is, thus, a very modern one; its evolution is tied not only to popularisation of democratic values but also to the technological innovation that took place in the domain of book printing. 

As printed books reached the market in ever larger numbers, it opened up entire new possibilities about how one learnt. From then on, at least potentially, one could self-tutor without having to either join a religious establishment or even a university. Protestant religious leaders encouraged parents to gain education and pass on the knowledge to their offsprings through home tutoring. Public libraries sprang up, supplementing the private libraries of the rich and the powerful. Such accessible and cheap reading spaces encouraged private reading and studies. So, printing presses joined hands with universities and a growing body of teaching community to revolutionise the literacy-scape of Europe.

However, the progressive impact printing had on enhancing the mass literacy rate worldwide, particularly, in the global south had been repeatedly compromised by deep seated socio-economic inequities. Literacy rate varies by region; UNESCO reports that South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have the most illiterate people in the world. Literacy rates also vary based on sex, wealth, social status, and occupation. More men are literate than women, the wealthy can access schools easier than poor, farmers, labourers and artisans are historically known to suffer from illiteracy significantly more than the merchant communities. In countries with deep social divides, such as India, caste combines with class position to keep children of lower castes and Dalits out of schools. 

“Educate, agitate and organize”: Education and social slavery
BR Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution of India and the undisputed leader of the Dalit community in India, consistently reiterated the transformative value of education. Critiquing British policy for restricting education to only members of the upper stratum of the Indian society, particularly the Brahmins, Ambedkar argued, “Education is something which ought to be brought within the reach of everyone”. Ambedkar shared educationist John Dewey’s understanding that, education provides everyone, irrespective of the person’s social and economic status, with the means to change the world and not merely to understand it. 

Convinced, as was Dewey, that the forward march of democracy is crucially dependent on educating the people to help them understand social realities, Ambedkar emphasised that Dalits should forego no opportunities of getting educated. In a very moving message he called out, “We may forego material benefits, but we cannot forego our rights and opportunities to reap the benefits of highest education to the fullest extent”. 

To realise his vision of an independent India in which there are educational opportunities for all, Ambedkar deliberately included Article 45 in the Directive Principles of State Policy: “The state shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.” Along with ensuring universal literacy, Ambedkar established the People’s Education Society (PES) in 1946 to propagate higher education among the Dalits. He hoped that PES would serve the purpose of promoting intellectual, moral and social democracy beyond the narrow scope of literacy as a standard skill. 

National Book Trust: Literacy as empowerment and its challenges
Books have been vital to achieve literacy, not simply to enhance the use of skills and improve the quality of life and livelihood, but also as mean of empowerment. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India and an avid reader himself, understood the importance of reading to enhance the quality of national life. To ensure that citizens of India could get good quality books at inexpensive prices, he set up the National Book Trust of India (NBT) in 1957, within a decade after India’s independence. 

Nehru hoped to make NBT a bureaucracy-free structure which would be publishing for ordinary Indian citizens in both English and in the vernacular. NBT’s primary goal has been to inculcate reading habit through publication of “outstanding” books of “modern knowledge” as well as literary work - both foreign and Indian. In many ways, the books published by NBT has helped readers, such as me, to interpret literacy as an empowering experience. The concept of literacy has evolved over the last 50 years and true to the spirit of Ambedkar and Nehru, NBT had been trying to publish works that would help us to understand and question the world as well as problematise social structures and the exercise of power. 

But like all good dreams revolving around nation-building, NBT has recently floundered in the rocky terrain of ideological power politics. Keeping to the trend of the last few years, the management of NBT has recently decided not to reprint historian Bipan Chandra’s Communalism-A Primer. Chandra was one of the foremost historians of India who passionately wrote about communalism, which he considered to be a scourge in the national history of the subcontinent.

Having witnessed the devastating impact of Hindu-Muslim riots during the political partition of India, Chandra was deeply concerned about the impact communalism would have on secular fabric of independent India. He was thus a relentless critic of majoritarian politics, raising concerns at the alienation felt by minority communities in face of Hindu nationalism.

I called up the chairman of NBT, Baldeo Bhai Sharma, to seek a better understanding of the reasons behind taking Communalism out of circulation. Mr Sharma is a veteran editor who has in the past served as the editor of national weekly Panchjanya of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Sharma trivialised the incident as a “routine” procedure. He insisted that a review committee looked into it and Bipan Chandra’s primer on communalism was one among many other books that have been discontinued. When I asked Mr Sharma what are the other books that did not make it to the press this year, he did not have an answer and dropped the call.

Without an official explanation from the NBT I turned to Prof Mridula Mukherjee, who had been Chandra’s student and is a celebrated historian herself. She was, understandably, very shocked. She constantly asked how could NBT, being a public body, decide to stop reprinting a book without giving adequate explanation. She, however, at the same time laments that this has become the current trend in the literary world.

When asked why she thinks NBT decided to stop Chandra’s book when there is no dearth of books on communalism in the Indian context, her explanation was that, unlike the others books whose main target audience are research scholars, the primer on communalism focused on ordinary people. Thus, the intellectual reach of the book was immeasurably larger than, say, a book such as Gyan Pandey’s Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India.

Though the idea of communalism is complex, Chandra made sure it was expressed in the simplest of language, without any rhetoric or jargon. It was meant to explain to the common men, women, and youth of India the danger posed by communalism. Chandra was untiring in his exhortation that communalism - no matter how well it masquerades itself as nationalism - is at the end harmful for the unity and prosperity of the country. Prof Mridula Mukherjee posited that the present power in Delhi obviously did not like Chandra’s exhortations and, hence, the decision to stop its republication.

Thus, Chandra’s book got withdrawn by the very organisation which was formed to serve the broader goals of literacy and, more importantly, for embodying the very essence of literacy which teaches you to question power. 

Dr Mridula Mukherjee, who herself has served in the editorial board of NBT, repeatedly pointed out that “never ever” in the past has the publication house taken such an abrupt decision to withdraw a scholar’s work. So she demands that NBT must have the honesty to come out with the “real” reason behind such a decision. She thinks, as a scholar, that Bipan Chandra’s book cannot simply be dismissed as another textbook that is easily replaceable by another well-written one. The significance of Chandra’s book lies in the fact that it taught ordinary Indians, with basic education, to recognise communalism and identify the negative stereotypes it creates in popular imagination. 

On the World Literacy Day, we have to remind ourselves that each time we decide to ban, burn or refuse to publish a book, we defeat the very liberating principle of expanding literacy that we are supposed to uphold.